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Decolonizing Mindfulness

Updated: Aug 25, 2021

Recently my colleague Tamara Turner, LCSW with whom I’m in a therapist book club with (yes therapists do like to hang out with each other, in case you were wondering) suggested we read a book on the roots of mindfulness and healing from suffering. They offered this after we had looked collectively at our lists of to read as a group, many of whom wrote about mindfulness and transforming suffering, but were mostly straight white cisgender men and women. Many of these books were connected to healing or psychotherapy training modalities that cost in the tens of thousands to fully complete. This feels like a perfect example of the commodification of mindfulness that we are seeing in Western society. Taking cultural or spiritual traditions and making them cost money, or trendy, or turning them into tools to further capitalism.

Tamara's thought behind reading a book on Buddhism was to dig into some of the original thinkers and teachers of mindfulness and meaning making, and per their recommendation we landed on The Heart of Buddha's Teaching by Thích Nhất Hạnh.

In the first chapters of this book, I couldn’t believe how many times I underlined something and wrote in the margins: THIS IS THE CORE OF PSYCHOTHERAPY. I know that many cultures, thinkers, spiritualities, and traditions dig into making meaning from suffering. My people (Eastern European Jews) are even known for a deep fascination with this and have been around for a long time trying to understand why the world is broken and how to heal it, more on that in a second.

I have mostly read mindfulness practices so out of context from spiritual tradition and historical contexts. Mindfulness has always felt important to my own healing and my therapy practice, but shocker, it didn’t mean as much to me until I read more on it’s roots, but from my culture and from others. This is the power of learning the true, grounded histories. Through learning context and honoring and naming it, we can decolonize our world and frameworks.

Mindfulness at times has felt like torture for me, and I’ve heard the same from clients. This idea that we have to sit in silence with our overactive brains, our traumatized nervous systems, feels somewhat impossible for many of us. But as Hạnh teaches, mindfulness is not just meditation, or setting an alarm on your phone to remind you to check in with yourself. It is a deep rewiring of our brains to ask the important questions, like one he phrases as “What are you doing?” Recently I was caring for a loved one as they recovered from a minor surgery, and it was oh so easy to get caught up in the stress of it all. Med management, do we have enough food, am I going to get enough sleep tonight and so on. When I asked myself “What are you doing right now?” I could answer with my heart “caring for my loved one” and I was brought back to the present moment, re-centered on what I was truly doing, instead of being stuck on the hamster wheel of overwhelm. I didn’t need to sit in quiet meditation to come back to the present moment (and if that works for you, great!)

Hạnh reminded me in his book that walking is a meditation, washing the dishes is meditation, doing one thing at a time is meditation. Sex. Hiking. Gardening, Petting your cat. Cooking. The opportunities for Right Mindfulness are everywhere, not just on a meditation cushion.

One of my favorite parts of Hạnh’s teaching of Buddha's knowledge is the Four Noble Truths, which I have put in my own words below:

Step 1: Recognize we are suffering. Being able to say “I am in pain” or “I am traumatized”. Validating for ourselves and maybe with others that this is happening.

Step 2: Locate where that suffering is coming from. Find the triggers, the childhood wounds, the broken heart, and what isn’t working in our life, isn’t serving us. What part of us is suffering, where we feel it in our bodies.

Step 3: Realizing that we can find wholeness and peace, despite our suffering.

Step 4: Making meaning from our suffering. Recovery. Accepting all the parts of ourselves and overcoming self alienation. Reconnecting with a core self. Learning to be in our bodies again. Helping others.

If this isn’t trauma informed psychotherapy, I don’t know what is. Except this is ancient. This teaching is thousands of years old. For those of us who are therapists, it’s not that mindfulness isn’t ours to guide our clients towards, and for those of us who are practicing it, it’s not that we can’t, but it’s so important to look towards it’s original teachings.

So why is this a framework that resonates so deeply across religion, healing journey, and spirituality? Because this is being alive. Some of us were unfairly handed more suffering, because of our identities, our bodies, our classes, chance circumstances. That needs to be held too, and through the work of Critical Race Theorists like Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw we can learn that the more intersections of identity and/or oppression we sit at, the more oppression and often trauma we experience (and also the more complex and beautiful our lives can be as well.) No matter our level of trauma, we can hold this truth, that what has happened should of never happened, and that liberation from suffering is possible.

People have been healing and making meaning from their suffering forever. My ancestors found rituals, a protective God, connection to the land and harvest, and a promise to do whatever they could to put the pieces of the world back together. This also led to many of the ideas we have around what Psychotherapy is, as many of the first Psychotherapists were Jewish, and many of my wonderful teachers happen to be as well. Psychotherapy isn’t just this clinical, evidence based practice, although it's that too. It’s one of the many ways we can heal. There are ways of healing from trauma, transforming pain into meaning, and finding a higher purpose in all cultures and societies. There are so many ways to heal. We can learn from all kinds of teachers.

These questions also led me to the work of Michael Yellow Bird, MSW, PhD and his practice of Neurodecolonization, which “involves combining mindfulness approaches with traditional and contemporary secular and sacred contemplative practices to replace negative patterns of thought, emotion and behavior with healthy, productive ones'' which you can read more about here.

Yellow Bird takes decolonizing mindfulness to the next level, by utilizing it, along with cultural practices, in his work with his communities of indigenous folks to help them heal from the violence of colonization. He applies mindfulness to the ritual work people are already engaging in, and through awareness guides them to see ways of rebuilding neural pathways in the brain, replacing pathways laid by the trauma of colonization with pathways of healing and culture.

Mindfulness is a tool of liberation in so many ways. From interpersonal traumas, collective traumas, the traumas of everyday living in a pandemic and climate crisis. It can bring us back into ourselves and out of our devices, which demand for us to work 24/7. It can help our bodies feel like home. It can connect us to all parts of ourselves, helping us mindfully observe who is showing up instead of dismissing thoughts and emotions, like Richard Swartz write about in his incredible new book, No Bad Parts. He writes about how encouraging clients or ourselves to watch these thoughts and emotions float by like clouds can sometimes miss the purpose of these thoughts and emotions. That they are often communications from parts that need to be heard, acknowledged, and then as can ask those parts what they need. Or, we can gently ask them to wait in the waiting room of our consciousness until we can tend to those feelings.

When we name and understand where this practice comes from, it honors the original teachers, and makes the practice that much deeper for all of us. We can do this by digging into mindfulness traditions from our own culture, or looking at a way of rooting our cultural or spiritual practices in mindfulness.

I discovered that in my culture, there is a practice called Kavanot. This is a practice of having intention behind your thoughts, actions, and prayers. If you get up everyday and pray or meditate, and you have no intention in your mind and heart, then it is empty. I think this is so crucial in our world today where we are told what self care and healing looks like, often at the gains of capitalism. Wake up, meditate (so you can be more productive at your job) and if you don’t meditate, it's your fault that you’re stressed out. When we wake up and meditate with a different intention, to be kind for ourselves, to show up for our parts, to give ourselves a brief moment of mindfulness before dealing with the various stressors of our day, this practice has a whole different meaning. What does this look like for you? Where can you find traditions of mindfulness in your culture, and/or honor where the ones you use come from?


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